The San Francisco 49ers quarterback competition will move full steam ahead when training camp arrives late next month. Blaine Gabbert benefited from Colin Kaepernick’s rehab process, getting all the first team work in team drills. Kaepernick got some 7-on-7 work in minicamp, but he has a lot of on-field work to do once training camp gets going.
Gabbert is likely the early favorite for the starting QB job given his extra time implementing the offense, but once we get a week or two into training camp, we might have a better idea where things stand. If Gabbert does win the starting quarterback job, he has a coach in Chip Kelly who could help bring out his strengths. Considering what Kelly did with Nick Foles, it is not crazy to think he could do something similar or better with Gabbert. It will require more consistency from the offensive line, and improved play at wide receiver, but the opportunities are there.
NFL.com writer Bucky Brooks took a look at a handful of quarterbacks with a chance to revive their careers this season. In discussing Gabbert, he pointed to Kelly’s work with Foles, assessing it as a simplistic passing game with a rapid tempo pace. This is not exactly groundbreaking analysis, with plenty of past discussion about the offensive simplicity.
The offensive wizard cleverly blended a rapid tempo pace with a simplistic passing game that allowed the Philly quarterbacks to attack static defenses forced to play vanilla coverage in the back end. Sam Bradford and Mark Sanchez also enjoyed solid runs under Kelly (see: Sanchez's 2014 season and Bradford's last seven starts of 2015) as the directors of an offense that emphasizes a handful of passing concepts (six to eight route combinations) from a variety of formations and personnel groupings. The scheme also allows quarterbacks to execute the same series of triangle or multi-levels reads with different players running the routes from multiple formations.
He then points to Gabbert’s athleticism providing some running options. Nick Foles, Sam Bradford, and Mark Sanchez did not provide the kind of running ability that the 49ers quarterbacks have. We think of Kaepernick’s running, but Gabbert is most definitely no slouch.
In San Francisco, Kelly will be able to enhance Gabbert's skills by utilizing some zone-read and RPO (run/pass option) concepts to keep the defense off balance. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound quarterback is a slippery athlete capable of delivering big plays on the perimeter as a run/pass threat. Thus, Kelly can use Gabbert as a runner on zone-read plays, quarterback runs or bootleg passes. Those plays will not only enhance the49ers' running game, but they will create bigger windows for the quarterback to exploit on play-action passes.
The quarterback competition will seemingly come down to accuracy. Gabbert had a huge improvement, finishing the 2015 season with a 63.1 percent completion percentage over eight games. Part of that was benefiting from shorter passes. Gabbert finished second to last on third down passes in Football Outsiders’ ALEX rating. We might get a better idea this year how much of last year’s short passes were Gabbert vs. the play-calling.
Colin Kaepernick finished with a 59.0 completion percentage in eight games last season. His career low was 58.4 in 2013. In 2012 and 2014, he completed 62.4 percent and 60.5 percent of his passes, respectively. One of the quarterbacks is going to need to step up with that intermediate accuracy if they are going to win the job, and if this offense is going to find some success. The training camp practice reports will be intriguing to read when August arrives.